Revisiting the NHL's Biggest 2016 Free-Agency Signings a Year Later

Lyle Richardson@@SpectorsHockeyFeatured ColumnistJuly 13, 2017

Revisiting the NHL's Biggest 2016 Free-Agency Signings a Year Later

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    The 2017 NHL free-agent market opened on July 1, and all of the biggest signings took place within a few days of that date. Given the lack of notable free-agent activity of late, it's worthwhile to revisit 2016's biggest signings, such as Milan Lucic joining the Edmonton Oilers.

    Some, such as Lucic, proved to be worthwhile additions to their new clubs. Others, such as New York Islanders left wing Andrew Ladd, struggled through the first season of their new contracts. 

    Here's a look back at last summer's biggest unrestricted free-agent signings. Salary and player performance factored into this compilation. Feel free to express your views on this topic in the comments section below. 

Eric Staal, Minnesota Wild

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    Former Carolina Hurricanes captain Eric Staal signed a three-year, $10.5 million contract with the Minnesota Wild. The annual salary-cap hit was $3.5 million and included a modified no-trade clause. 

    Staal enjoyed a bounce-back performance in his first season with the Wild. His 28 goals were his most since tallying 33 in 2010-11, while his 65 points made for his best total since his 70-point effort in 2011-12. The 32-year-old center was the Wild's leading goal scorer and finished second in points. 

    Though Staal is no longer the big star he was through most of his tenure with the Hurricanes, his signing with Minnesota still garnered considerable attention last summer. Thanks to the improvement in his production, the Wild got a substantial return last season on their frugal investment.

    Staal, who turns 33 on Oct. 29, could find it difficult matching his 2016-17 numbers over the remainder of his contract. Nevertheless, the deal remains reasonable for the Wild. If he stays within the 20-goal, 50-point range in each of the next two seasons, his signing could be the steal of the 2016 free-agent market. 

Frans Nielsen, Detroit Red Wings

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    After 10 seasons with the New York Islanders, center Frans Nielsen signed a six-year, $31.5 million contract with the Detroit Red Wings. His annual average value of $5.25 million is second to captain Henrik Zetterberg ($6.083 million) among Wings forwards

    In 79 games with the Wings last season, Nielsen scored 17 goals and 24 assists for 41 points. For the sixth time in the past seven seasons, he reached the 40-point plateau. Among Wings scorers, he tied Zetterberg for third in goals and finished fourth in points.

    While Nielsen put up decent numbers in 2016-17, he couldn't help the Wings avoid missing the playoffs for the first time since 1990. Now 33, the skilled two-way center is approaching the point in his career when his play could begin to decline. 

    If the Wings were a Cup contender, as they were a decade ago, the addition of Nielsen could be seen as a justifiable move. Now, however, they're overdue for a significant rebuild. The Wings would have been better off using the money invested in an aging Nielsen to restock with younger talent.

Andrew Ladd, New York Islanders

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    A former captain of the Winnipeg Jets, left wing Andrew Ladd signed a seven-year, $38.5 million contract with the New York Islanders. He's tied with center John Tavares among Isles forwards for the second-highest cap hit ($5.5 million).

    In his first season with the Islanders, Ladd tallied 23 goals and 31 points in 78 games. While finishing third among their leading goal scorers, he was seventh in points. That was his lowest point total since his 30-point effort in 2007-08 split between the Carolina Hurricanes and Chicago Blackhawks. 

    That's not the type of production expected from a top-six winger carrying an expensive long-term cap hit. To be fair, Ladd's production improved in the second half of the season after Doug Weight took over as head coach. Perhaps a full season playing for Weight will improve Ladd's consistency in 2017-18.

    The Islanders made a big investment in Ladd, a hardworking two-way winger with leadership skills who played for Stanley Cup champions in Carolina (2006) and Chicago (2010). However, he turns 32 in December and could be wearing down after 12 NHL seasons. Rather than helping the Isles advance toward Cup contender status last season, he was among the reasons they missed the playoffs.

Alexander Radulov, Montreal Canadiens

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    Mark Humphrey/Associated Press

    Following four seasons playing in Russia, Alexander Radulov returned to the NHL in 2016-17, joining the Montreal Canadiens. The skilled right wing signed a one-year, $5.75 million contract

    Radulov proved he still had big league offensive skills, scoring 18 goals and 36 assists for 54 points in 76 games. He finished second among Canadiens scorers in regular-season points and was their leading playoff scorer with seven points in six games. 

    The Canadiens were rewarded for their one-year gamble on Radulov. His invaluable scoring punch provided a boost to their otherwise anemic offense. He was also a key reason why the Habs finished atop the Atlantic Division with 103 points.

    Unable to land a lucrative long-term contract with the Canadiens, the 31-year-old Radulov inked a five-year, $31.25 million deal on July 3 with the Dallas Stars. Should he mesh well alongside Stars superstars Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin, we could be revisiting this deal next summer as one of the best of 2017. 

David Backes, Boston Bruins

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    Following 10 seasons with the St. Louis Blues, right wing David Backes inked a five-year, $30 million contract with the Boston Bruins. His $6 million annual average value is the fifth-highest among the Bruins.

    Prior to 2016-17, Backes reached the 20-goal plateau in six of the previous eight seasons and exceeded 40 points seven times during that period. But in his first campaign with the Bruins,  Backes managed 17 goals and 38 points in 74 games. Among Boston scorers, he finished fifth in goals and seventh in points. 

    Those aren't the type of numbers expected of a power forward carrying a $6 million annual cap hit. While he led the Bruins in hits (226) and remains well-respected for his leadership and two-way play, the decline in his production last season is troubling. 

    The Bruins are retooling their roster and bringing in younger players. Having a hardworking leader such as Backes in the lineup can make that transition easier. However, he's 33, and his best seasons could be behind him. His contract could become a considerable drain upon their payroll.

Loui Eriksson, Vancouver Canucks

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    Matt Slocum/Associated Press

    A former member of the Dallas Stars and Boston Bruins, right wing Loui Eriksson inked a six-year, $36 million deal with the Vancouver Canucks. His $6 million annual salary-cap hit is second among the Canucks only to Daniel and Henrik Sedin, with each earning $7 million annually. 

    Eriksson managed only 11 goals and 13 assists for 24 points in 65 games last season before a lower-body injury forced him to the sidelines. It was his worst performance since his 31-point sophomore campaign with Dallas in 2006-07 and a considerable decline from his 30-goal, 63-point effort with Boston in 2015-16.  

    The chemistry Eriksson enjoyed with the Sedins playing for Sweden in international tournaments failed to materialize last season with the Canucks. His dismal effort contributed to the Canucks finishing with the league's second-lowest goals-for-per-game average (2.17). 

    If the Canucks were still a Stanley Cup contender, as in 2010-11, the addition of Eriksson would've made sense. But with the aging Sedins well past their primes and Eriksson turning 32 on July 17, the Canucks are carrying a declining veteran winger who could become an expensive salary-cap burden in the coming years.

Kyle Okposo, Buffalo Sabres

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    Right wing Kyle Okposo left the New York Islanders after nine seasons to sign a seven-year, $42 million contract with the Buffalo Sabres. His $6 million annual average value is second only to Ryan O'Reilly ($7.5 million).

    Okposo was among the few bright spots on the rebuilding Sabres in 2016-17, tallying 19 goals and 45 points in 65 games. He finished fourth among Sabres scorers in goals and points. His numbers would've been higher but an adverse reaction to concussion medication prematurely ended his season.

    On June 15, Matt Schneidman of the Buffalo News reported Sabres general manager Jason Botterill said Okposo is expected to be fully recovered in time for training camp in September. That's good news for a Sabres offense that ranked 24th in goals for per game (2.43) last season. 

    Now 29 and in his playing prime, Okposo is among Buffalo's core players when healthy. For the Sabres to make significant strides toward playoff contention in 2017-18, Okposo must have a strong bounce-back season.

Milan Lucic, Edmonton Oilers

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    Following a one-year tenure with the Los Angeles Kings, left wing Milan Lucic signed a seven-year, $42 million deal with the Edmonton Oilers. His $6 million annual average salary ties him for the team lead with Ryan Nugent-Hopkins.

    Lucic made an immediate positive impact on his new club, finishing fourth in goals (23) and points (50). It was the fifth time he reached the 20-goal mark in his career and the seventh time he's exceeded 40 points. He was also their leader in power-play goals (12) while finishing third in power-play points, with 25. 

    An archetypal power forward, the 6'3", 236-pound Lucic provided the Oilers with a big, menacing physical presence. He played a significant role in helping them reach the playoffs for the first time in a decade. 

    Though Lucic's game is likely to decline by the latter years of his contract, the 29-year-old remains in his playing prime entering 2017-18. His physical offensive style, leadership and experience should help the Oilers remain a serious playoff contender in 2017-18.

           

    Player and team stats via NHL.com. Salary info via CapFriendly.